Art After the Holocaust (2)

This is the second in a series of posts.

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The truth that faces us in Freud’s prewar remarks and Améry’s postwar ones is the truth of the Holocaust itself. That truth demands of us that we make whatever changes in ourselves are necessary to effect the disavowal and relinquishment of any and all insistence that others conform to what they see as distracting, narcotizing, or escapist elements in our own self-identifications, in order to enter into full community with us and to share those self-identifications if they so choose, share them however their own backgrounds and dispositions may dictate. The truth of the Holocaust calls upon us to open all our own identities to all who choose—whether under compulsion of external circumstances (as with Améry) or by the experience of free, inner vocation (as with Freud)—to claim those identities themselves, given their own conditions of birth and heritage.

Thus, those among us who happen to be Jews are called upon to grant full Jewish identity even to such Jews “without God, without history, [and] without messianic-nationalist hope” as were both Améry and Freud. Those of us who are not Jews are called upon to do the same for Freud’s and Amery’s non-Jewish equivalents in regard to our own non-Jewish identities, whatever they may be. And we are all, Jews and non-Jews without exception, honor bound by the Holocaust to accept all those of all identities other than our own, accept them as full-fledged members of the one, universal human community. 

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It falls above all to art after the Holocaust to rise to meet that challenge, and help build for us all a world in which that demand no longer goes unheard and forgotten. The task of art after the Holocaust is to recall us to ourselves, from out of all the shameful self-forgetfulness into which all our diversions divert us.

After the Holocaust, art itself is challenged to build a place for the truth spoken to us in the words—and above all in the silence that all spoken or written words break, in order to give that silence itself voice—of the victims of the Holocaust. Truly post-Holocaust art would offer us the auditorium, as it were, wherein could resound, and continue to resound again and again, the call of the victims of the Holocaust, most especially all the anonymous dead among them. Art would then become the place of assembly where we are gathered together to hear the call of all those victims, calling us to assume our obligation never to forget them, and always to remember their suffering.

No art that silences any of those victims—any of them, pointedly including such Godless, uprooted ones as Freud and Améry—can become such a gathering place. No art that silences yet again anyone already once silenced by the Holocaust can give voice to all the voiceless victims, letting their silence be heard, rather than covering it over with so much noise, however grand that noise may sound.

Since I first encountered it when I was in high school, I’ve always been fond of a line wherein Jean-Paul Sartre manages, in reviewing the conjunct publication of Albert Camus’s The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, to damn Camus with apparent praise. Sartre writes that, with the publication of those two works, Camus “joins the long and illustrious list of the precursors of Nietzsche.” Thus, by Sartre’s lights those two books, which of course were not written or published until almost half a century after Nietzsche’s death, come “after” Nietzsche only in the purely chronological sense, but not “after” him at all in terms of the contribution Camus’s two books make to philosophy. Rather, as Sartre sees it, those works do not rise to the challenge—a challenge to thought itself—that Nietzsche himself was, and still is. Thought that truly comes “after” Nietzsche in what we might call the “substantive” sense could only be thought that rises up to meet that challenge.

Similarly, when I address such an art as poetry, and speak about poetry “after” the Holocaust, it is in that same “substantive” sense that I am using the term. In that sense, most of the poetry that happens to have been written or published only since the Holocaust came to an end does not belong in the category of “poetry after the Holocaust” at all.  Rather, it remains pre-Holocaust poetry—at best, a “precursor” to truly post-Holocaust poetry.

At worst, such pre-Holocaust poetry still written after the Holocaust becomes a shameful way in which poetry forgets itself distractedly, rather than honorably. Instead of forgetting itself honorably by abandoning all its own pretensions, so that it may become purely a place of remembrance of the Holocaust—a place in our shared language where we are gathered together into the silence of the victims of the Holocaust, and thereby brought to hear and heed the truth of the Holocaust that their silence speaks—such poetry forgets itself shamefully by calling attention to itself, noisily diverting us from that silence and that truth.

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To be continued.